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Congressional Dist. 25 race heats up

Friday, February 13, 2004 by

Hinojosa, Doggett spar over support of funding issues

With less than a month to go before the March 9 primary, the campaign for Congressional District 25 has moved to punch and counter-punch. Former Judge Leticia Hinojosa accused Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett of caring more about migrating birds than about social services for South Texans in a press release issued Wednesday. She also reiterated that she is from a poor Brownsville family, like many of the people both seek to represent in Congress. “Mr. Doggett, who lives in affluent Northwest Austin, thinks he doesn’t have to live among the people he wants to represent in Congress,” said Hinojosa.

But Doggett lives in the East Riverside Drive area, East of I-35, an area populated by students, the poor and middle class. Prior to redistricting, Doggett made his home in Clarksville, near downtown. Neither area would be characterized as affluent.

She also said Doggett had voted “against $20 million for water and wastewater disposal systems in border colonias and for opposing a $500,000 federal grant for South Texas Community College’s Milagros Center for Migrant Health Care in McAllen.” Not so, retorted Dr. Ramiro Casso, one of the founders of the clinic for migrants. The charges, along with Doggett’s response were reported in the McAllen Monitor and the online publication, the Quorum Report. Casso told the newspaper that Hinojosa had confused the clinic with another project.

Doggett sent out his own press release, saying that Hinojosa’s “diatribe demonstrates that desperation breeds distortion. Rejected by one group after another, such as the United Farm Workers and the South Texas Organization of Police, she has now downgraded to character assassination.”

“I didn’t get 100 percent ratings from the Catholic Social Justice Lobby, the American Public Health Association and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and an “A” from the Children’s Defense Fund, by voting against children, colonias and social justice. I defy her to find any such vote where these were the sole issues. In fact, I am a sponsor of two bills designed specifically to aid the colonias and recently received a letter of appreciation from the National Association of Children’s Hospitals.

Doggett pointed out that Congressmen Hinojosa, Rodriguez and Ortiz also voted in favor of money to study migratory birds. “I think she needs to spend a little more time along the Rio Grande. Some of us believe that the World Birding Center is an asset that can add to tourism and provide much-needed jobs for our area; apparently she thinks it’s just for the birds. Since Democratic members of the House supported this measure by a vote of 193-3, I think her problem is spending too much of her time with her friends in Republican-front organizations and the small group of insiders who chose her to advance Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s plan to remove me from office.”

Yesterday, the Hinojosa campaign responded with more criticism, with the candidate saying “Doggett is on the record as voting against funding for specific programs that are critical for this area. Mr. Doggett knows that in any legislature the votes that really count are the votes for funding projects.”

Doggett has received the endorsement of the United Farm Workers Union. The Texas Farm Bureau AGFUND, the farm bureau’s political action fund, has endorsed Hinojosa. She is one of only two Democrats running for Congress receiving the AGFUND endorsement. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, who is challenging Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, is the other.

Downtown on the move: Closure of San Antonio block approved

GSA official can't quite promise federal funds for Republic Square

The City Council took two votes Thursday that could have a major impact on the southwest corner of downtown. The Council directed the City Manager to begin vacating the 400 block of San Antonio to make room for the new federal courthouse while negotiating for the re-opening of the 300 block of 9th Street in front of the Homer Thornberry Judicial Building, which houses the federal bankruptcy court. They also approved a deal to let AMLI sub-lease retail space in the two Computer Science Corporation buildings and the new City Hall for retail development, in an effort to bring new pedestrian traffic to the area.

Representatives of the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, urged the Council to pass the resolution on the closure of San Antonio. They said it would lead to a dramatic improvement in the design of the new federal courthouse on the site where the skeleton of the Intel building now stands. “What this does is give us the opportunity to put the footprint of our building out to the property line instead of limiting it to 50 feet short of that property line,” said Leonard Murphy, director of property development for the GSA’s regional office in Fort Worth. That 50-foot buffer is part of the new security measures put into place for some federal facilities after September of 2001. It’s also the reason the federal government forced the closure of 9th Street in front of the existing federal building. A positive side effect on the building’s design, Murphy said, would be the creation of a pedestrian plaza at the building’s front entrance facing Republic Square Park. “We want to make the park and our plaza be one continuous space,” he said. Mayor Will Wynn brought up the possibility that the courthouse might one day need to expand, leading federal officials to try to take over the park. But Murphy said that would be impossible. “We have a very strong commitment to historic preservation. That’s a historic park there. I can’t imagine this generation or future generations doing something like that,” he said. If, in decades to come, the building is expanded, Murphy said it would either be to the rear or on the top. “There’s a long-term commitment that there would never be something on our front step.”

Other federal representatives pledged to work with the city and its designated representatives on the design of the building. “We want to work together to create a great place, a great space,” said GSA employee Harold Herbert. He told Council members the need to do so was driven home during a conference he attended two years ago, during which Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance made a presentation on the city’s Great Streets program. “That’s the first inkling of the idea that you really need to work cooperatively to have this new major federal facility fit in with what the City of Austin is doing,” he said.

The Council voted unanimously to support the resolution directing the City Manager to begin the street vacation process. Wynn queried GSA representatives about the possibility of federal funding to help reconfigure the traffic flow and refurbish Republic Square Park. The GSA’s Murphy stopped short of making any promises, but said that had been the trend in other federal projects. “We would try to include enough funding in construction appropriation for this project to handle a lot of this landscaping issues on what would be basically our front door,” he said. “It can be done and we will seek funds to try to help whatever happens in Republic Square. I can’t make any promises, because that’s based on a future Congress and what they will do, but I can tell you that it has been done before and we can give you examples and we will do everything we can to seek help.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told the GSA their help would be appreciated in prying money loose from the State of Texas, which had set aside funding that could be used for the project but had failed to disburse the money. “It is sort of in the bank with the doors locked. It’s not spent, and it’s not allocated for anything else,” she said. “So maybe you could extend your good-neighbor policy to go down with us hand in hand and see if we can’t get the sate to open up the bank door there.”

The Council also heard a presentation on the development of retail along 2nd Street from Jan Stephens of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. She outlined the key terms of the city’s agreement with AMLI to lease retail space downtown for the next 95 years and to market those spaces and secure tenants. The agreement includes a provision establishing a goal of having 30 percent of the tenants be local businesses.

Stephens told the Council the contract would list several criteria for defining a local business, which the Council had discussed extensively during its debate over whether to allow a Starbucks Coffee shop at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. “A lot of times, someone will say ‘that’s an Austin store’, but they may not have a 51 percent local ownership or they may not qualify,” she said. “So what we did was try to be broad enough to bring in both the ownership and that Austin identity…as well as someone who started out locally, they have their headquarters here or first retail here. They’re not going to be too big for us if they have a franchise and people accept them as one of our own.”

The first set of stores could open in the buildings on 2nd Street by the end of the summer. City staff and AMLI representatives hope to have the first wave of leases signed by the end of May. A second wave of stores is expected to open in late fall to coincide with the opening of the new City Hall building.

Police continue PR campaign

The Austin Police Association is circulating a memo to its members from attorney Tom Stribling. His message that “if your common sense, experience, training, and good judgment requires you to act to safeguard the life or well being of a citizen without waiting for backup, we will stand behind your decision and actively defend you against any politically charged attempt to destroy your career and your family’s livelihood.” At a Thursday press conference, APA spokesperson Lt. Kim Nobles told reporters that Chief Stan Knee’s decision to suspend Officer Scott Glasgow for 90 days for failing to wait for backup was unnecessarily harsh and sent the wrong message to officers on the street. “The Austin Police Association does not believe that officers should have to choose between protecting their jobs and protecting the citizens of this community,” said Nobles. “Officers are proud to wear the uniform and they’re proud of the promise they made to this community. If they decide to act without a backup to save someone who is being beaten, raped, or robbed, we want them to know that we will stand by them.”

At the time Glasgow shot Jesse Lee Owens, Owens was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle. Nobles also said officers were convinced that Chief Knee had based his disciplinary decision on political pressure rather than the facts of the case.

At the City Council meeting, ACLU representative Ann del Llano distributed a letter celebrating the union’s decision to withdraw from contract negotiations. “In the end, we believe this will benefit the city and we’re actually relieved the city now has the opportunity to be free from this contract,” del Llano told In Fact Daily. Her letter encourages the Council to proceed with the creation of a civilian oversight function outside of the contract, and points to other potential uses for the funds originally set aside for raises under the contract.

Historic task force recommends lower abatement

Seventy-five year cutoff recommended for tax incentives

The Historic Preservation Task Force took on the Gordian knot of protecting current tax abatements and rolling back future tax abatements at this week’s meeting.

Task force members knew that Austin offered the most generous tax abatements in the country for historic structures. The City Council wanted that issue addressed. But task force members also knew, from the testimony of homeowners two weeks ago, that many of the homeowners whose dwellings have earned historic designation depend on their abatements.

In a fast-paced meeting of motions and substitute motions, the task force recommended that the City Council allow any residential property that makes it through the historical designation process, before the final approval of the new historic preservation ordinance, to maintain its current level of city tax abatement. That means a 100-percent abatement of ad valorem taxes on improvements and 50 percent on land.

Chair Betty Baker would have preferred limiting the current abatement to those properties landmarked by Dec. 31, 2003. The majority of commissioners, however, were ready to offer the abatement to properties in the process of designation. Baker estimated that seven cases are currently in the city pipeline. The Council approved historic zoning on five houses on all three readings yesterday. The current tax abatement also will be maintained for landmarked commercial properties. A total of 399 buildings have been deemed historic since the historic preservation ordinance was adopted in 1974. About 170 of those were residential properties.

The proposal for abatement of future residential properties was a combination of proposals made by Baker and Commissioner John Donisi. Under the proposal, a property may be deemed historic but it won’t necessarily qualify for a tax abatement.

In a prior section of the ordinance, the task force agreed that 50 years would be the threshold for possible historic designation. To qualify for tax abatements, however, structures must be at least 75 years old. That will cut out a number of potentially eligible properties.

Ex-officio member Laurie Limbacher, a member of the Historic Landmark Commission, expressed concern that homeowners might be discouraged from applying for historic designation on a 50-year-old house if it would not qualify for a tax abatement. Baker, however, pointed out that the city received a greater number of applications for historic designation in the years before a tax abatement program was available.

To further limit the totals, Donisi proposed a $2,000 cap on tax abatements for residential properties. That total is the average amount deferred for residential properties. The figure adds some certainty to the maximum that the city will lose each year. The city typically has no more than 30 houses that are designated historic in any given year.

Then, after some motions and substitute motions addressing totals, commissioners agreed to new percentages for the tax deferment: 90 percent for improvements and 50 percent for land. Task force member Jerry Harris negotiated the compromise between commissioners who wanted to maintain the current abatement and Baker, who thought 100 percent was too generous.

Commissioners were sensitive to the cost of maintaining historic commercial properties. Knowing that maintenance costs were high and that only a handful of properties were still likely to apply for historic designation, the task force agreed it would not set a cap for abatements on commercial properties.

Baker said development pressures, especially to tear down historic buildings in the city’s core, were far stronger than those in residential communities.

The deferred tax amount would be maintained as it is, at 50 percent of improvements and 25 percent of land value. The threshold would be set at 75 years, which was a concern to Donisi, but only because he was uncertain how many buildings would fall between the 50- and 75-year-threshold. Baker assured him she could think of only one potential building—the Norwood Towers—that would miss the new mark. The new levels for tax abatements will be combined with more stringent historic criteria.

At its last meeting, task force members asked for estimates on eligible properties. According to a study presented to the task force by Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, there are 3,318 properties within the city’s 8 historic districts. Of those, 1,933 have been determined to be contributing to the historic district. Of that total, only 35 structures have completed the landmark process to date.

Looking at the figures another way, Sadowsky pointed out that 450 properties were identified as architecturally significant under the city’s 1984 Comprehensive Cultural Resources Survey. Of those “Priority 1” properties, 171 have been landmarked, representing 38 percent of those properties.

Task force member Jim Christianson read into the record a statement that the Austin school district gives up $1 million in revenues under the tax abatement program. Of that total, about $750,000 remains in the district and $250,000 is sent to the state.

The task force agreed to take up the issue of incentives for historic districts at its next meeting. Task force member Terre O’Connell has lobbied hard to address the issue as a way to provide more predictability in the historic designation process.

Holiday on Monday . . . City, federal and state offices will be closed for the President’s Day holiday. We will publish a Monday edition . . . Judge appointments move another step forward . . . The City Council voted 4-3 once again to appoint Municipal Court Judges, leaving Judge Celia Castro without a job after 20 years of service on the city bench. The Council must take the item up a third time, since the motion did not garner enough votes to pass on third reading . . . Short story . . . Sarah Crocker, normally a stickler for detail in her presentations before the Board of Adjustment, had a minor slip-up Monday night. Crocker made arguments in favor of a variance for a sign at a shopping center on Research Blvd. before the case was actually called. A confused Frank Fuentes caught the error. After calling up the applicant on the previous case, who was not present, the Board heard from Crocker again. The variance for Crocker's client, Austin Home Center Associates, was eventually approved . . . “Kumbaya,” she said . . . The song title has become Austin-speak for agreement on political matters, usually regarding land use. So, when Sarah Crocker heard a neighborhood leader sing Kumbaya to her, she knew that all would go well with her zoning case at the City Council yesterday. The Council gave 1st reading approval to the Balcones Centrum development at North Hills Drive and MoPac from LO-CO and GO-CO to GO-CO and GR-CO. Crocker noted that this property has gone through several zoning changes over the past 20 years and this is the first time the neighborhood and the developer have come to an agreement . . . Appointments . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Ruby Roa to the Community Development Commission. Hers was the only appointment to come out of Thursday’s meeting . . . Congratulations. . . At yesterday’s meeting, Mayor Will Wynn pointed out that Saturday is the 32nd wedding anniversary of Council Member Danny Thomas and his wife, Janice. We wish them a Happy Valentine’s Day.

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